The great trickster god of the Norse pantheon, Loki was a devious deity known for his many schemes and deceptions. A shapeshifter, Loki’s forms were as varied as the motives for his mischief, which included wealth, women, wisdom, and the sheer pleasure of his knavery. With Loki, appearances were never quite what they seemed. While Loki’s antics frequently embroiled the gods in sticky situations, his tricks often rescued them from troubled times as well.

Loki by Arthur Rackham (1911).Public Domain

A member of the Aesir tribe of deities, Loki—along with Odin, Thor, and Freya—constituted one of the four ruling deities of Norse thought. Though his mythology consistently overlapped with those of his divine counterparts, Loki differed from them in important ways. Where Thor, Freya, and even Odin (a trickster himself) strove to impose a righteous order amongst the gods, Loki’s erratic behavior called the very nature of his allegiances into question. For example, it was predicted that during Ragnarök Loki would fight on the side of the jötnar against the gods.

In truth, Loki was neither for or against the gods. Like the trickster figures of other mythologies, he was neither good nor evil, choosing instead to be a partisan of disorder itself, a figure who tested boundaries and challenged conventions. His chaotic inconsistency reminded believers that the boundaries between good and evil were far more tenuous than they suspected.

Etymology

The name “Loki” has long been likened to the Old Norse logi, meaning “fire.” While Loki, like fire, was destructive and unpredictable, the similarity between the two words was probably incidental. A newer and more likely etymology traced the name “Loki” to the Germanic words for “knot, loop, or tangle.” Such words have a literal connection to the deity—Loki was often depicted as a maker of fish —but also a deeper, metaphorical connection: Loki's schemes were like webs that ensnared the unwary. Spiders were referred to as loki from time to time, as their webs caught unsuspecting victims in a similar manner. Loki was also likely referred to as a “knot” for his tendency to go against the other gods.1

Attributes

Loki’s chief attributes were his wit and wile. He seldom engaged in physical combat, and as such carried no weapons. He also lacked any well-attested charms, garments, or vehicles. One source, the Skáldskaparmál, mentioned that Loki possessed a pair of magical shoes—“Loki had with him those shoes with which he ran through air and over water”—but no other sources made such a claim. On one occasion, he borrowed Freya’s magical falcon cloak, though he returned it shortly afterward. In spite of his lack of personal accoutrements, Loki had an unusually prominent role in procuring them for other gods.

Loki was the preeminent shapeshifter amongst the gods. On various occasions, he took the form of a salmon, a flea, a fly, and a mare. He also took the form of human beings, such as an old woman named Thökk who fatefully refused to weep for the fallen Baldur.

Family

Loki was the son of Fárbauti, an unspecified jötunn whose name meant “cruel striker.” His mother was usually called Laufey, though she was also referred to as Nál. Loki’s brothers were Helblindi and Býleistr, also jötnar.

Loki married the goddess Sigyn, about whom little is known, except that by Loki she had a son named Nari, or Narfi. Loki also reproduced with his mistress, Angrboda, a jötunn (possibly a troll) who gave birth to three children: Hel, who ruled the eponymous underworld called Hel, Jörmungandr, the sea serpent of Midgard and arch-nemesis of Thor, and Fenrir, the massive wolf fated to slay Odin during Ragnarök.

Loki and His Children by Carl Emil Doepler (1881).Public Domain

Loki gave birth to another of his children on his own. During an escapade in which he had taken the form of a mare, Loki was impregnated by a stallion called Svadilfari. Some time later, Loki birthed Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse, who was to become Odin’s favorite mount.

Mythology

Origins

Though Loki’s entrance into Norse mythology came later than most, his origins remained difficult to discern. In the oldest poetic works, such as the Grímnismál (which had fragments going back to the eighth century), Loki was conspicuously absent. In non-Norse sources of pre-Christian Germanic religion, Loki was once again either absent or presented in a very different manner. Such evidence suggested that Loki was a deity unique to the Northern European, or Scandinavian, people.2

Loki, the Incorrigible

Loki’s great mischief always stood front and center in the trickster god’s rich mythological tradition. One classic story began with an act of wanton mischief and ended with the gods receiving a bountiful haul of treasures. The story appeared in Snorri Sturluson’s Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda. One day, Loki was feeling mischievous and decided to cut off all of Sif's hair. Sif was Thor’s wife, and was known for her beautiful, flowing locks of blonde hair. Naturally, when Thor discovered Loki's prank, he flew into a rage and threatened Loki with violence. Desperate to quell Thor’s anger, Loki promised to find the Black Elves and have them make a replacement.

Loki admiring the golden wig crafted by the dwarves to replace Sif’s hair. Helen Hodge in Maria Catherine Klugh’s Tales from the Far North (1871).Public Domain / Library of Congress

Wanting to make amends, Loki traveled to Svartalfheim, a land home to Black Elves, dwarves, and other jötnar that was located deep in the bowels of the earth. There, Loki found the sons of Ivaldi, who were known as the greatest of craftsmen. The sons of Ivaldi soon fashioned a new set of hair for Sif and two other marvels. One was a ship called Skidbladnir, which could always find wind when its sail was raised; the ship also folded up into a package so small that it could fit in someone's pocket. The other wonder the dwarves crafted was Gungnir, a spear with an unstoppable thrust.

Seeing the wondrous treasures the dwarves had made gave Loki an idea. After collecting the treasures from the sons of Ivaldi, Loki sought out the dwarf brothers Brokkr and Sindri, who were themselves master craftsmen. Loki taunted them, claiming they could never craft anything as perfect as the creations of the sons of Ivaldi; he even wagered his head against the claim. With their pride on the line, the brothers took the wager and set to work on the forge. In an attempt to distract them from their work, Loki transformed himself into a fly and bit the dwarves repeatedly. Brokkr and Sindri were unfazed, however, and soon presented Loki with three masterworks of their own. The first was Gullinbursti, a golden-maned boar that glowed in the dark, ran through water and air, and traveled faster than horses. The second was Draupnir, a golden ring that sprouted eight identical rings every ninth night. The third and final item was a war hammer called Mjölnir, which in the hands of Thor became one of the most fabled items in all Norse lore.

This image from an Icelandic illuminated manuscript of the sixteenth century depicts Loki with a devilish grin and his trademark item, the fishing net. The net is certainly a fitting metaphor for Loki's scheming ways, which ensnared many unsuspecting victims. This is manuscript SÁM 66 and is held at the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.Public Domain

Loki returned to Asgard with Brokkr and bid the gods to judge which of the six items was the greatest. Loki gave the hair to Thor so that Sif would once again wear beautiful golden locks. He gave Gungnir to Odin, and offered Skidbladnir to Freya. Brokkr then presented gifts of his own: to Freya he gave the boar, to Odin he gave the reproducing ring, and to Thor he gave mighty Mjölnir. The gods agreed that Thor’s hammer was the finest of all the creations, but when Brokkr went to claim Loki’s head, he found that the god had fled using on speedy shoes. Thor helped find him, but Brokkr was still unable to claim Loki's head, as the trickster god riddled his way out of trouble.

Loki, the Joker

The quintessential version of Loki appeared in the poem of the Poetic Edda called the Lokasenna (“Loki’s quarrel”). The irreverent poem began in the halls of Aegir, a god of the sea, where the gods were feasting and drinking their fill.

Loki causing mischief. Lorenz Frolich (1885).Public Domain

The assembly heartily praised the industry of Aegir’s servants, Fimafeng and Eldir. Loki took offense at this, however, and murdered Fimafeng. The gods cursed Loki for his actions and took up arms against him, forcing him outside. After a while, Loki returned with the intention of making mischief:

“In shall I go into Ægir's hall,
For the feast fain would see;
Bale and hatred I bring to the gods,
And their mead with venom I mix.”3

What follows was called a flyting, a formalized exchange of insults that was a common Norse practice. In the course of the flyting, Loki hurled insults at most every god in attendance. He accused Frigg, Odin’s wife, of adultery with Odin’s brothers Vili and Ve, called Freya a “witch” and claims that she had an incestuous romance with her brother Freyr, boasted that he himself had sired a child with Tyr’s wife, and called Thor a coward and Odin a heretic. He ends with the parting shot at Aegir:

“Ale hast thou brewed, | but, Ægir, now
Such feasts shalt thou make no more;
O'er all that thou hast | which is here within
Shall play the flickering flames,
(And thy back shall be burnt with fire.)”4

Loki then transformed himself into a salmon and jumped into the river to escape the wrath of the gods.

Loki, the Helpful

Loki demonstrated a different side of his personality in another episode involving Mjölnir, which appeared in the Thrymskvitha, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda. Early in the poem, Loki was approached by Thor, who had awoken to find his hammer missing. In a suspicious display of helpfulness, Loki offered to locate the hammer. He asked Freya for her magic cloak made of falcon feathers, which would allow him to fly and discover the hammer's location much more quickly.

Loki then flew to Jötunheimr (the land of the jötnar and one of the Nine Worlds in Norse thought), and approached Thrym, the king of the realm of the jötnar. Thrym declared that he had stolen Mjölnir and had hidden it eight leagues beneath the earth. Furthermore, he would not return the hammer until he received Freya's hand in marriage. Loki dutifully returned to Asgard and informed the gods of the news:

“Trouble I have, and tidings as well:
Thrym, king of the giants, keeps thy hammer,
And back again shall no man bring it
If Freyja he wins not to be his wife.”5

Amidst the assembled gods, Heimdall spoke up and proposed a ruse whereby Thor, dressed as Freya, would go to Jötunheimr and reclaim the hammer. Naturally, Thor objected, thinking the ruse would make him look unmanly. Loki urged him to reconsider, however, by highlighting the danger of inaction:

Then Loki spake, the son of Laufey:
“Be silent, Thor, and speak not thus;
Else will the giants in Asgarth dwell
If thy hammer is brought not home to thee.”6

Thor saw the wisdom in Loki's words, and agreed to the plan. The gods then sprang into action, clothing Thor in a dress with gems, adorning him with Freya’s prized necklace Brísingamen, and covering his face with a bridal veil. Together with Loki, who was dressed as his maid servant, Thor traveled to Jötunheimr and gained access to Thrym’s hall.

“Why are so fearful the eyes of Freyja? Fire, methinks, from her eyes burns forth.” Upon Loki’s suggestion Thor dons bridal attire and is welcomed by Thrym, who believes him to be his bride-to-be, Freya. As the night draws on Thrym questions Thor’s behavior, but ultimately remains convinced that his new wife will indeed be Freya, a decision that results in his demise. Lorenz Frolich (1885).Public Domain

An unsuspecting Thrym welcomed his bride and her servant to his hall, feting them with food and drink. In his bridal disguise, Thor devoured an entire ox, eight salmon, and three whole casks of mead. When Thrym raised questions about his bride’s odd behavior, Loki stepped in to allay his suspicions:

Hard by there sat the serving-maid wise,
So well she answered the giant's words:
“From food has Freyja eight nights fasted,
So hot was her longing for Jotunheim.”7

Having grown lusty from the mead, Thrym moved in close to Thor for a kiss, but when he lifted the bridal veil, he saw hard and hateful eyes. Again Thrym commented on the indelicacy of his bride-to-be, and again Loki jumped in to offer an excuse:

Hard by there sat the serving-maid wise,
So well she answered the giant's words:
“No sleep has Freyja for eight nights found,
So hot was her longing for Jotunheim.”8

Ultimately, the ruse worked perfectly. When Thrym brought out the hammer to consecrate the marriage, a laughing Thor snatched it up and slayed the entire wedding party, including Thrym’s old sister.

Loki, the Shapeshifter

The greatest of all divine shapeshifters, Loki often used his talent in surprising ways. In the Gylfaginning book of the Prose Edda, Loki’s shapeshifting took a particularly dramatic turn. The tale began when a hill giant and master builder approached the gods and offered to erect an impregnable fortress that would protect the gods from enemy jötnar. In exchange, he asked for the sun, the moon, and Freya's hand in marriage. Loki and the gods deliberated, eventually consenting to the bargain on the condition that the builder must complete the fortress by the first day of summer. The builder countered that he must be allowed to use his stallion, a creature named Svadilfari, to help him. Seeing no harm in that stipulation, the gods agreed.

With summer approaching, the fortress was nearly complete. Svadilfari was quite the workhorse, and had completed the majority of the work himself. Fretting at the prospect of losing Freya forever to Jötunheimr, the gods decided to sabotage the hill giant’s efforts. To this end, Loki transformed himself into a mare and paraded in front of the stallion, enticing him with her feminine charms.

Loki and Svadilfari by Dorothy Hardy (1909).Public Domain

The work immediately came to a halt, enraging the hill giant: “When the wright saw that the work could not be brought to an end, he fell into giant's fury.”9 The hill giant then attacked the Aesir gods, who called on Thor to assist them. The thunder god, who had been away hunting trolls, returned swiftly and smote the creature where he stood.

Loki’s romantic dalliance, meanwhile, had taken a serious turn. The horses copulated, and Loki (in mare form) became pregnant. According to the Gylfaginning “But Loki had such dealings with Svadilfari, that somewhat later he gave birth to a foal, which was gray and had eight feet; and this horse is the best among gods and men.”10 This foal was none other than Sleipnir, an eight-legged stallion who quickly became Odin’s favorite horse.

Loki, the Shapeshifter, Continued

The Sörla þáttr, a fourteenth century narrative written by Christian priests, contained another story involving Loki as shapeshifter. This narrative focused on Freya, who was presented as Odin’s lover. One night, Freya slipped away and found a cave full of dwarves. Freya watched them as they crafted a beautiful necklace (probably Brísingamen, her prized torc). Freya desired the necklace badly, and asked the dwarves to name their price. The dwarves agreed to give it to her on the condition that she have sex with all of them. She did so, and received the necklace in return.

Loki, as a fly, bites the sleeping Freya’s cheek and makes off with her necklace. Illustration by Helen Hodge in Maria Catherine Klugh’s Tales from the Far North (1871).Public Domain / Library of Congress

When Loki discovered her infidelity, he told Odin. In turn, Odin ordered Loki to retrieve the necklace as proof of the affair. Transforming into a flea, Loki slipped into Freya’s sealed bedroom tower. When Loki discovered her sleeping, Freya was lying at such an angle that made reaching the necklace impossible. To remedy this, Loki bit Freya on the cheek, causing her to turn over. With Freya's shifted position, Loki was able to unclasp the necklace and deliver it to Odin.

In the end, Freya confronted Odin about the theft, and he revealed his knowledge of her promiscuity. Odin then claimed that he would return the necklace if she could force two kings, each ruling twenty kings, to fight an endless war. Each time the kings slayed each other, they would rise again to fight. This would happen for all eternity until a true Christian (Olaf Tryggvason, the Christian King of Norway from 995–1000 CE) arrived to end the war.

The Betrayal of Baldur and the Binding of Loki

The critical turning point in Loki’s relationship with the gods came with his treacherous betrayal of Baldur, one of Odin’s sons and the half-brother of Thor. While the full story was spread out amongst a number of old sources, the narrative generally remained consistent between them. It all began when Baldur was troubled by dreams of his own death, dreams that his mother had as well. Seeking answers, Odin summoned a völva from the dead. The völva confirmed Odin’s fears and told him that Baldur would indeed die, but did not reveal how his death would occur. In her worry, Baldur’s mother, Frigg, made all things in existence pledge that they would never harm Baldur. All did except for mistletoe, which, Frigg reasoned, was so harmless that it could never cause injury to her mighty son.

When Loki learned of all this, he concocted a foul plot. He fashioned a spear out of mistletoe and gave it to Hodr, the blind son of Odin and Frigg, and brother of Baldur. Loki told him to throw the spear at Baldur as a joke, and Hodr, not knowing the spear could actually harm Baldur, complied. The spear pierced Baldur's chest, killing him.

The Punishment of Loki, by James Doyle Penrose.Public Domain

In response, Odin had a child with the giant named Rindr. That child, Váli, grew to manhood in a single day and slayed Hodr for his crime. Loki was not so lucky, as the gods devised a more sinister punishment for him. They pinned Loki against a pile of rocks and bound him there with the entrails of his son, Nari. They also set a poisonous snake above his head that would drip venom onto his face and body, causing writhing agonies that shook the very foundations of the earth. This was the Norse explanation for earthquakes. In myth, Loki was left in this tortured state until Ragnarök was about to begin.

Ragnarök

During Ragnarök (the “fate of the gods”), the sequence of events leading to the death and rebirth of the world, Loki was said to play a decisive role. Ragnarök's beginning would be marked by Loki’s release from bondage, and the trickster would eventually join the side of the jötnar in their conflict against the gods. Loki’s children, Jörmungandr and Fenrir, would also contribute to the demise of the gods. In the end, Loki himself would turn into a seal and battle Heimdall; both were fated to die in the melee.

Pop Culture

Loki’s popularity saw a resurgence with the Germanic revival of the nineteenth century, when the mythic heroes and villains of yore were resurrected to serve the nationalistic ends of Germanic people in Western and Northern Europe. Loki appeared in many works of art, including Richard Wagner’s epic operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1874), in which he was a two-faced servant of Odin who betrayed the gods.

Loki costume design by Carl Emil Doepler for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), 1889.Parsifal07030

More recently, Loki featured prominently in the Marvel comic books and cinematic universe, where he was portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. In these works, Loki was presented as the adopted son of Odin and half-brother of Thor, with whom he had a conflicted love-hate relationship. Loki resented Odin for showering love and attention on mighty Thor, who was beloved by everyone, especially the people of Earth (Midgard).

This version of Loki was still quite the trickster, and his mischief often drove the plot forward. In The Avengers (2012), Loki helped an alien race obtain the Tesseract, a powerful talisman, in exchange for an army with which he attempted to conquer Earth. For Loki, the conquest of Earth was a way of delivering a personal blow to the mighty Thor, who has assumed the role of Earth’s protector.

The Marvel works also presented Loki as a master shapeshifter. Rather than assuming animal forms, however, as he did in mythology, here Loki often took the forms of human beings.

References

Bibliography

  1. Groeneveld, Emma. “Loki.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/Loki/.

  2. “Lokasenna.” Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe10.htm.

  3. McCoy, Daniel. “Loki”. Norse Mythology for Smart People. https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/loki/.

  4. Sturluson, Snorri. “Gylfaginning.” Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm.

  5. “Thrymskvitha.” Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe11.htm.

Footnotes

  1. McCoy, “Loki.” 

  2. Groeneveld, “Loki.” 

  3. “Lokasenna,” Stanza 3. 

  4. “Lokasenna,” Stanza 65. 

  5. “Thrymskvitha,” Stanza 10. 

  6. “Thrymskvitha,” Stanza 17. 

  7. “Thrymskvitha,” Stanza 26. 

  8. “Thrymskvitha,” Stanza 28. 

  9. Sturluson, “Gylfaginning,” 55. 

  10. Sturluson, “Gylfaginning,” 55.